It Was Like That
A lifetime ago a friend and I were wandering the streets of Bangkok when an enthusiastic citizen of the city attached herself to us and offered to show us some of the more reclusive sights. And maybe it’s because we were young and women, but enthusiastic native tour guides seemed the norm in those days. Strangers discovered us on trains and buses or in hostels and offered advice or services or a moment of friendship, and some insisted on showing us sights. In India, we spent several days trying to elude the tour guide who’d attached himself to us at the hostel we’d made our home base. He placed himself in the isle at the front of a bus wearing a lungi wrapped around his ample belly, blocking the Bollywood musical blasting on the television as I recall—he was as much a tourist as we on this particular bus—and remonstrated to the other passengers in our defense about the volume of the video and the seating assignments and he lectured on sights and the safety of women in a bullhorn voice. He was an ambassador, he claimed, or a dignitary, or a friend of an ambassador or dignitary or someone of import, and he ballyhooed and ordered and aggrandized and we withered in our seats and giggled because we were young and conscious of the stares of the other passengers and wanted to blend in despite our blinding white skin and blond hair, or at least not position ourselves as obnoxious Americans. In those days, I suppose, we had a habit of ditching the men we found annoying, or crazy, or terrifying, and our ambassador—well he made us nervous. So we plotted various disappearances, but he found us with a belly laugh amongst the thousands of tourists near the reflecting pool of the Taj Mahal, or outside the ladies’ room at the Red Fort, or even on a random bus we jumped back to New Delhi. No doubt our constant fading into the touristscape confirmed our Ambassador’s belief in our helplessness and our need for his supreme and knowledgeable guidance. As I recall, we evaded his hound dogging about the time we escaped the country.
In Thailand our citizen guide bounded up to us on a street corner and took us to a temple. The enormous Buddha in this particular temple could be lifted by the faithful, she said, and asked us to give it a try. We each took a turn, wrapping our arms around the massive statue and of course it wouldn’t budge, and we laughed.
She offered us something, probably food, we were always famished on our $15 or $10 or $2/day touring.
Take what you need she said and it seems like she offered a basket, the details are fuzzy and I’ve no memory for detail. And traveling was like that. We became friends with strangers and found wisdom in the angle of the sun, or a turn of phrase because we were looking for wisdom, or magic, or a knowing of the world.
This stranger’s words pierced me and I’ve thought about them often over the years. Her simple advice was wise and full of humanity and established a landscape between asceticism and excess. Our needs and therefore existence are not at the whims of a government or religion—self-determination is a birthright.
But it’s need, not want, the curbing of appetite, the built-in restraint of the sentence that makes it a jewel. Of course, need and even take are ill defined, blurred lines, swamps several miles wide. This geography too dry and brittle for pythons and gators is not addressed by the turn of phrase but it is implied—you are not entitled to take what you don’t need.
I suppose it’s easy to infer anarchy in this little nugget, and I’m not suggesting nabbing a coat off the rack in Target because it’s cold, or rushing your neighbors grill because your famished after an ubber workout and that steak smells amazing! I’d rather apply this philosophy like an old-style transparency sheet over a social context or condition—take is an action word—what you need will not be given and so there is also personal responsibility.
On the other hand, take what you need does not mean take your friends flip-flops and give them to the Sherpa guide, though he may need them more than she—didn’t you have your own to give? He was pounding up the Himalayan Mountains in Nepal carrying heavy backpacks on enormous bare feet—his feet had pancaked from years of shoeless climbing—I’ve seen photos of Sherpa feet measuring twelve inches across the base. Kari was doing better than I but we were both huffing pretty heavily at nearly 2000 meters (about 6200 feet). We stopped for a break and sat on some rocks and we talked with the guide about the trail. Other Sherpas ran by with large baskets and we could see the toilet paper and bottles of Coke jiggling over the top—all to serve the booming tourist industry—and in a moment of compassion, Kari reached into my pack and pulled out my flip-flops and she gave them to the guide and he seemed delighted. He wore those cheap shoes for the rest of our trip up the mountain, I don’t know how he kept them on his feet. I like to imagine those slivers of shoe climbing up to the sky.
Later when we were cleaning up in a shower carpeted in fungus and filth in some hostel or inn, I took Kari’s flip-flops (she may have offered them). Traveling was like that.